The British Prime Minister Theresa May made a speech today announcing how the U.K. was going to Brexit the hell out of the E.U., and let me tell you, it was a piece of work: wanting everything, giving nothing. Far from being a mellow statement about disentangling from the political machinery of Europe, the speech was a window into how politics in the United Kingdom work. With its claim of being simultaneously strong and put-upon, the British government is just about ready for a membership on Reddit.
To watch this speech was to see Britain claim it was going to stay in the world, but shrink away from it at the same moment. I was reminded of a clergyman committed to doing good but concerned about how his plums would fare if he was away too long on protests.
What Britain seeks is not partnership with Europe, but another day in the fading twilight. Like an aging beauty holding a gun, the nation dreams of powers and principalities it can no longer have. The recent announcement, with its combination of weird posturing goofiness, half-assed threat, and uncalled-for pride, is contemporary British democracy in a nutshell. As far as the tastes of the political class goes, it’s tone-perfect, but by the standards of reality, it’s tone-deaf.
As The Guardian reported:
Theresa May has committed to putting the final Brexit deal to a vote in parliament in a speech on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, and insisted that if she failed to get what she wanted no deal would be better than a bad deal. The prime minister’s pledge to hold votes in both the Commons and the Lords came alongside a stark warning to European countries that any attempt to inflict a punitive deal on the UK would be an act of “calamitous self-harm.”
Since the Brexit vote, the Parliament of the United Kingdom and its reigning Tories have grasped in the dark for some way of withdrawing with dignity. But it’s far too late for dignity, as the parson said to the shepherd trapped in a wine barrel.
Still, the Prime Minister tried. May hinted, if pressed by the tyrants across the Channel, she would gut taxes and invite in the rowdy investor class—implying, of course, they were not already there, and not already in power.
In other words, “Nice European Union here; shame if anything happened to it.” But this is posturing of the delete-your-account variety. May has no leg to stand on, as she engages in what the teens and newspapers—okay, just the newspapers—are calling “Hard Brexit,” which sounds like the title of a major John Woo movie from the Nineties.
On the topic of European secession, May’s tack disallows for any hokey-pokey: There will be no one foot in, one foot out, as far as London is concerned. That means whenever Brexit comes, it comes wearing the face of winter and wilts all the branches: free immigration goes; the single market goes; the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction goes; the customs union goes; everything must go, and all that is European and Union must pass from the sunless shores of Albion.
In the realm of politics, there’s not a lot that’s surprising about May’s commit to follow through on what the referendum decided. But in another, more accurate sense, it was a triple-layered sigh of resignation to the final downgrading of the United Kingdom. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, tweeted, “We cannot let @Theresa_May use Brexit to turn Britain into a tax haven on the edge of Europe and create a bargain basement economy.”
Like Obamacare, the European Union is rife with neoliberalism, but EU membership does more good than harm. Britain has always been coy about being in Europe; even when they were there for it, they weren’t really present, i.e., the Reagan approach. The U.K. had, as the phrase goes, a “special something” between them and the European continent.
Now, in the breakup stage, the two blocs have conflicting goals. The endgame of Britain is to get as much economic and cultural benefit out of the EU while not actually being a member. Friends with benefits. The goal of the EU is to punish Britain for mucking up this relationship. They have to, to be taken seriously. This will not be an amicable divorce.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW
What if Parliament fails to pass a vote for them to leave? May claims that Brexit will occur regardless of Westminster’s opinion on the matter. As The Standard reported, “The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.”
Per The Independent:
ITV’s Robert Peston asked “would we still be in the EU” if there is a no vote in Parliament.
Ms May appeared to dodge the question, saying: “What does it mean? There would be a vote for the British Parliament when it comes to the deal, as I’ve said. ... I’m sure that the British Parliament will want to deliver on the views of the British people and respect the democratic decision that was taken.”
So the British government says. The referendum was not legally binding, of course. So what happens if the seated will of Britain declines divorce themselves from Brussels?
The majority of the Members of Parliament (MPs) are said to be opposed to Brexit. If they actually vote against the motion, it fails, Brexit is done, and the May government falls with it. Half of the country is relieved. The other half react with all the mild annoyance associated with the better class of English soccer riot. The majority, assuming they are still lined up against the European Union, would be massively upset and civil disobedience would result. The Conservative Party would be punished in the next election, although to what extent remains to be seen.
Long story short, there’s an election, and a Trump-style result, unless enough of the British switch their vote for the EU, however that happens. Legally, Parliament is supreme and can decree tonight’s cricket scores are now the law of the land, should the spirit move them. Politically, it’s unlikely.
None of this is surprising: the populace voted, we saw the result, and now May is left holding the designated-driver key purse at the end of a full-tilt binge night of secessionary drinking. Brexit is the deal that the party did not want, and that the rest of the world does not want, and forty-eight percent of the country did not want, but it’s still happening. May herself does not want it. Before Brexit, during a private audience with the mandarins at Goldman Sachs, May said (per The Guardian), “I think the economic arguments are clear … I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us.”
As in most Western powers, the British elite have benefited from the last 30 years of globalization while the home front outside of London dwindled. Yet Britain still manufactures irony locally. The Conservative Party has this talking point, about how the departing U.K. must make itself over into “Global Britain.” But how can Britain belong to the world, when its livelihood barely belongs to itself?
British factories, which started the Industrial Revolution, are made paupers for outsourcing. As the Financial Times points out, “In the UK the average income of the richest ten per cent is almost ten times larger than that of the poorest decile.” Richard Tudway, a scholar at the Centre for International Economics, once wrote:
To repeat the metaphor used by John Rose when he was chief executive of Rolls-Royce, Britain is like an aircraft-carrier: companies can easily land and leave. Their roots are not here, nor their senior management. Most of their R&D is overseas. Only a few settle, such as Nissan (which will leave if Britain pulls out of Europe) and BMW.
Over the decades Britain’s management elites have abandoned our industries one by one. The political justification was that Britain must be the first to embrace the post-industrial world. The result is that the British people continue to pay the price of being ever more dependent upon inward investment to support their declining wealth. You make a virtue of this dire necessity. ...
Britain is a wasteland of lost opportunities and failed policies. It is socially and economically dysfunctional. A measure of the depth of our failure is exemplified by George Osborne’s trip to China to drum up support for both the funding and the construction of Hinkley Point and doubtless other power stations to follow. Reviled on the one hand as a totalitarian state, China is welcomed on the other to bail out Britain.
“This land of such dear souls,” says John of Gaunt, in Richard II, a play about a distracted and delusional ruler: “... Is now leased out … That England, that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
The lesson of Brexit is not that foreign influences are bad, or that cosmopolitanism doesn’t work. It’s that society is not the servant of money; money should be the servant of society. You cannot have a system where majority of the citizens are a blank, mute backdrop for the circus tricks of global capital. That’s not how the world should work. Why have we designed an international civilization where capital can cross any boundary, smash any institution—but where human beings have to shuffle and plod through airport checkpoints?
What do the Tories mean, then, when they speak of Global Britain? What, indeed? What the government is proposing is not the United Kingdom charting its own path. They are not suggesting rebuilding the industries of the U.K., or reopening the factories, strengthening the unions, or saving the towns. That is not how the British leadership, or the leadership of America, think.
When they use the phrase “Global Britain,” they are speaking not of an actual nation made up of people; rather, they are speaking of a brand.
From a political and economic view, leaving the EU is still a feeble idea for actual Britain.
But from the brand perspective, it barely registers at all. British goods are made by non-British factories. Indeed, what does the nation matter? The focus in the phrase “Global Britain” belongs on adjective, not the noun. It is not Britain which seeks to become Global; it is the Globe who wants to take Britishness for itself, at the expense of actual British people. You can have Britain in love with Europe, or Britain in love with itself, but if you think you can have a Britain which neither belongs to Europe or to its own people, you’re dreaming. And yet on it goes.
Watching Brexit unfold is like watching most British dramas: no matter what the future promises, you’ll find it difficult to change the Channel.